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The Big Data Challenge of Activity Trackers

The activity tracker revolution

Activity trackers such as the ubiquitous Fitbit, Jawbone and the Garmin Vivofit are extremely popular these days. You can frequently spot them on colleagues, friends and customers. Their popularity raises a question: Does the collected data add value to your personal life? As a data hungry endurance athlete who relies on various technologies such as heart rate monitors, accelerometers & powermeters to improve my training I could not resist finding the answer. For the past three months I have worn a Garmin Vivofit to collect and analyze data. Here are my experiences and a simple process for getting value out of your activity tracker.

The Data

What do activity trackers actually do? The devices count the number of steps that you take each day (they also estimate the distance you have covered). In addition, they also track data about your sleep. The Garmin Vivofit and the Polar Loop also allow you to measure your heart rate and the associated calories burned during workouts. Pretty basic stuff really, nothing too fancy. Once the data has been collected you can review it in an app. The reports are very easy to understand, but it’s easy to brush over them. As a matter of fact, many people I know don’t use the dashboards. Instead, they simply look at their total step number. I believe that you can do more. Last year I wrote a very popular post called “Data is only useful if you use it!“. The activity tracker is a prime example. Here is the process that I leverage.

The Garmin Vivofit Dashboard

The Garmin Vivofit Dashboard

Five easy steps

1. Collect a bunch of data.

Start using your activity tracker for a few weeks. Make sure to wear it every single day. Wear it all the time. Synchronize frequently to avoid losing data. Also, make sure to familiarize yourself with the reports that are available for your device.

2. Analyze your lifestyle.

Once you have collected data, spend some time to look at the reports. I discovered a few surprises:

  • Reaching the typical goal of 10k steps per days is not that hard for me. A typical morning run can easily get me above to 10000 steps before 8am.
  • A typical workday is a bit of a shocker: Conference calls, admin work and email create long periods of complete inactivity except for the occasional walk to the coffee machine or the bathroom. As a matter of fact, the morning runs often account for 80% of the activity for the entire day.
  • Weekends and vacation days usually show a high activity level. I typically move around a lot and it is spread evenly throughout the day.
  • No wonder that conferences and trade-shows are so exhausting: the five most active days (as measured in steps) are linked to conferences. You constantly move, hardly ever sit around and often walk long distances.

Check out the charts below. Pretty interesting stuff.

Vivofit Report

A typical workday: Run in the morning and then a lot of nothing. Not good!

Vivofit Report

Vacation day – constant movement

3. Identify weak spots.

Now that you have found some interesting patterns, identify your weak spots. I found three specific areas:

  • Not enough sleep
  • Too many periods of complete inactivity during working hours
  • Hardly any activity on workdays when I don’t work out (steps below 5000)

It’s fairly easy to get this information out of the reports.

4. Make changes to your lifestyle

It’s time to make some changes. In general, scientists recommend to stay active throughout the day to keep your metabolism engaged. And some of the activity trackers can help you with that. My Garmin Vivofit, for example, features a red bar on top of the display which displays inactivity. To clear this bar you basically have to move and do something.

Sitting on a plane...

Sitting on a plane…

In general, here are some of the things that I have changed:

  • Instead of taking mental breaks at my desk (surfing, reading the news, personal email), I now get up every 45-60 minutes and spend a few minutes doing an activity (walking, push-ups, stretching).
  • 3-4 short walks on rest days. It’s good to get out!
  • Focus on sleep

5. Use the activity tracker for daily motivation

Once you have some goals and objectives, you can also use the activity tracker to get motivated. First of all, there is the daily goal that all of these devices provide you with. Then some of them also have badges for certain achievements. It’d kind of fun to work on getting them. Last but not least, you can also participate in step challenges with friends and families.

Garmin Vivofit Badges

Collecting badges can be fun

Summary

Activity trackers can definitely provide you with some interesting insights. However, you do have to make an effort to analyze the data. Simply looking at the total number of steps is probably a waste of money. To do that you can purchase a cheap step tracker. It’s the analysis where you get the bang for the buck. Will I continue wearing the Garmin Vivofit? I certainly will. I am currently in the process of assessing how activity levels between really hard workouts affect my recovery. What are your experiences?

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Keep natural gas flowing with analytics

The Power of Data

Last week, I had the honor to moderate the OSIsoft 2014 user conference in San Francisco. Over 2000 professionals came together to discuss the value and use of real-time data across different industries. There were a ton of really interesting and inspiring customer presentations. It’s just amazing to see how much companies rely on analytics these days to keep their operations running and/ or to improve their situation.

Combating the Polar Vortex

One of the keynote presentations of the conference really stuck out and I want to share the content with you. Columbia Pipeline Group (CPG) operate close to 16000 miles of natural gas pipelines in the US. Keeping the gas flowing reliably and safely is not easy to begin with. But doing that during the polar vortex that struck the East Cost of the US earlier this year is even harder. CPG turned to real-time data and analytics to keep their assets safe. The benefits of using data are tremendous as outlined in Emily Rawlings’ presentation:

  • Estimated $ 2.8M in savings from event (outages etc.) prevention
  • Increased customer confidence
  • Improved asset reliability
  • Expanded operational visibility.

If you have a few minutes to spare, take a look at Emily’s cool presentation:

 

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Data is only useful if you use it!

The value factor

We have all become data collectors. This is true for corporations and individuals. Organizations store petabytes worth of customer transactions, social sentiment and machine data. SAP’s Timo Elliott recently wrote a nice blog post about the ‘datafication’ of our own private lives. Just to give you a personal example, I have over 2GB worth of exercise data (heart rate, running pace, cycling power, GPS info, etc.) ranging back to 2003. But there is a growing problem – too many people & organizations are just really good at collecting data. Not enough people are doing anything with it. Let’s face it – data is only valuable if we really use it!

The inertia problem

strava

There is a ton of data available

Leveraging data for your benefit can be a struggle: you have to process it, you have to look at it, you have to analyze it and you also have to think about it. Here is an example: let’s say I am a runner and I wear a heart rate monitor that is connected to my iPhone. I will only get value out of that data, if I am willing and qualified to analyze it after each run. Letting the data sit on my iPhone will not help me identify trends and patterns. And then there is also the step of developing and implementing specific actions: should I rest, do I need to run harder to improve my marathon time or do I actually need to slow down to accelerate recovery? The same thing is happening in organizations. Starting to trust your analytics is another whole big issue.

Take action

How can we prevent becoming masters in data collecting but rather champions in performing analytics? Based on my experience there are a number of actions we should all look at (personal & professional):

  • Examine your available data and make sure that you really understand what it all means. This includes knowledge of the data sources, meaning of KPIs, collection methods, etc..
Power data

Do you really understand your data?

  • Sit down and clearly identify why you are collecting that data. Identify goals such as increase sales, set a PR in the next marathon, increase machine performance.
  • Develop a habit of working with your data on a daily basis – practice makes perfect. Only cont
  • Acquire the right skills (attend training, read a book, meet a thought-leader etc.) – we all need to work on our skills
  • Invest in the right tools – not every piece of software makes it easy to perform analysis.
  • Collaborate with other people, i.e. share your data, discuss findings
  • Celebrate success when you are able to achieve your desired outcomes

What are your experiences? Are you really leveraging your data or are you just collecting it? What else can we do?

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The Power of Data – Collaboration

It’s my data!

No doubt – there is tremendous value in data. I use data collected from a small sensor in my bike to improve my cycling performance. Factories leverage data to keep their machines humming as long and as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, most companies have historically tried to keep data for themselves. Sharing was a foreign concept. Security concerns and cultural barriers (“It’s my data!”) have fostered this environment.

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.”― Dalai Lama XIV

Collaboration

What if we could share critical data with relevant stakeholders in a secure and effective way? Would we be able to improve our performance? Take a look at this short video to see what can happen if you start sharing subsets of your data. It is a fascinating scenario.


OSIsoft will release this new technology later this year. Stay tuned for more updates.

How could your business benefit from collaboration? What type of data are you ‘hiding’ from your stakeholders?

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Naked Statistics – A book review

Scary Statistics

Amazon.com recently recommended the book Naked Statistics: Stripping Dread from the Data. Since I already knew the author Charles Wheelan from his awesome book Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science (Fully Revised and Updated) I went ahead and bought this one for my Kindle. Great decision – it is one of those books that is fun to read while also adding (hopefully) long-lasting value. To make it short: Business Analytics professionals should read Naked Statistics. We work with data on a daily basis and there is an increasing emphasis on Predictive Analytics. Professionals therefore have a growing need for a decent working knowledge of statistics.

All Greek?

Many people have a hard time with statistics. College and university courses usually throw around a wild mix of scary looking formulas containing lot’s of Greek symbols. It certainly took me a while to make sense of my professor’s scribble. As a result, lot’s of people develop a fear of of this subject. Naked Statistics, however, demonstrates that it is possible to teach a seemingly complex topic in a simple manner. Charles Wheelan provides a journey through some of the most important statistical concepts and he makes it fun and easy to understand.

The content

Naked Statistics covers a broad range of the most fundamental statistical concepts such as median, standard deviation, probability, correlation, regression analysis, central limit theorem and hypothesis testing. Each concept is explained in simple terms. The author also uses a mix of fictitious stories (some of them are funny) and real-life examples to show how things work and why they are relevant. Math is kept to a bare minimum – you will only find a few formulas in the main text. Reading is easy and fun. I was surprised to find that I devoured many chapters late at night in bed (I don’t usually read business books that late).

NormalDistributionSD

The normal distribution – no need to be afraid

Naked Statistics

Naked Statistics is a great read. It provides you with a sound working knowledge of statistics and it actually motivates you to dig deeper (I pulled out one of old text books). For those people who know statistics, this book can help you brush up on some concepts. Analytics professionals might also want to recommend this read to colleagues who start working with predictive analytics and other advanced tools. Students should buy a copy before they attend statistics classes – they will certainly be able to grasp the more advanced subjects more easily. I wish I had had this book back at university. It would have saved me some sleepless nights. Two thumbs up – Charles Wheelan does strip the dread from the data.

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Big Data – Can’t ignore it?

Big data

2012 is almost over and I just realized that I have not yet posted a single entry about big data. Clearly a big mistake – right? Let’s see: Software vendors, media and industry analysts are all over the topic. If you listen to some of the messages, it seems that big data will create billions of jobs, solve all problems and will make us happier individuals. Really? Not really – at least in my humble opinion. It rather seems to me that big data fills a number of functions for a select group of people:

  • It provides analysts with a fresh and fancy-sounding topic
  • Media have something big to write about
  • BI companies obtain a ‘fresh’ marketing message
  • Professionals can have ‘smart’ discussions
  • Consultants can sell new assessment projects

Big data – really?

I do apologize for sounding so negative. But I have a hard time finding big value in this big data discussion. Please don’t get me wrong – I would be the last person to deny that there is a tremendous amount of value in big data. But it does not deserve the hype. On the contrary, I personally find that the current discussions ignore the fact that most of us do not have the skills to do big data. We need to get the foundation right and make sure that we can tame the ‘small data lion’ before we tackle the big data Gozzilla. Don’t believe me? Consider the following:

  • Spreadsheets are still the number one data analysis tool in most organizations.
  • Managers still argue about whose revenue and unit numbers are correct.
  • Knowledge workers have yet to learn how to make sense of even simple corporate data sets.
  • 3D pie charts are floating around boardrooms.
  • Companies spend over 6 months collecting and aggregating budgets only to find that a stupid formula mistake messed up the final report
  • Hardly any professional has ever read a book or attended a course about proper data analysis

Pie Chart

Here is the thing: Dealing with big data is a big challenge. It will require a lot more skills than most of us currently have (try finding meaning in gazillion TBs of data using a 3D pie chart!).

A big data problem

Earlier this year, I acquired a 36 megapixel camera. You can take some amazingly gorgeous photos with it. But it comes at a cost. Each photo consumes 65-75MB on my sad hard drive. Vacations now create a big data challenge for me. But guess what: this camera is anything but easy to handle. You have to really slow down and put 100% effort into each and every photo. 36MP have the ability to reveal every single flaw: The slightest camera shake is recorded & exposed. Minimal focus deviations that a small camera would not register, kill an otherwise solid photo. In other words: this big data camera requires big skills. And here is something else: The damn camera won’t help you create awesome photos. No, you still need to learn the basics such as composition, proper lighting etc.. That’s the hard stuff. But let me tell you this: If you know the basics, this big data camera certainly does some magic for you.burj khalifa

Big data – what’s next

Ok. That was my big data rant. I love data and analytics. No doubt – there is a tremendous amount of value we can gain from those new data sources. But let’s not forget that we need to learn the basics first. A Formula 1 driver learned his skills on the cart track. At the same time, there is a lot of information hidden in our ‘small data’ sources such as ERP, CRMs and historians. Let’s take a step back and put things into perspective. Big data is important but not THAT important.

With that: Thank your for following this blog. Happy holidays and see you next year!

Christoph

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Recommended reading for December

Recommended reading

December is always an interesting month. Analysts, software companies and journalists post a ton of predictions, reviews and opinions to celebrate the start of the new year. 2012 is not different. Here are a a few posts that I highly recommend reading.

Most influential visualizations

Tableau Software without a doubt knows a lot about data visualization techniques. That’s why I happily viewed one of their new presentations out on Slideshare. It’s called ‘The 5 most influential data visualizations of all time”. Some of the featured visualizations have been discussed by Stephen Few and Edward Tufte, but it’s well worth spending a few minutes reviewing and thinking about how they changed the course of time.

The statisticians at Fox News

Are you ready for some hilarious reading? Well, here it is. The good folks over at the Simply Statistics blog compiled a number of data visualizations that appeared on Fox News (don’t worry – this is NOT about politics). Most of the featured charts are flawed from a technical point of view, but it turns out that they do an excellent job of communicating the intended message (which can be very different from what the actual data says….). Read with a smile but don’t loose focus on the idea that there is an important message! Most of us strive to produce visualizations, dashboards and reports to provide an accurate portrait of reality. But we can also twist this around and do the opposite: confuse and mislead. You might also want to take a quick look at the comment section of that blog entry. That’s where the post starts getting political.

Simply statistics

One of the charts that is being discussed.

Nucleus Top Ten Predictions for 2013

Nucleus is one of those research houses that produces very interesting reports. I don’t always agree with the stuff that they write, but it is certainly amongst the most tangible in the industry. Their 2013 predictions don’t disappoint. And guess what – BI is on top of the list. The remaining predictions represent a mixture of different trends – most of which affect analytics to a certain degree. In any case, the free report is well worth a five minute investment. One of my favorite statements is: “It’s time to make sure HP has signed its organ donor card.” You can download the free report from the Nucleus website.

Nucleus predictions 2013

 

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Is your analytics solution a trusted advisor?

The trusted advisor?

Many of us get really frustrated when business people do not immediately embrace our analytics solutions. But let’s step in their shoes for a moment. Trusting analytics for decision making is leap of faith. Imagine you are a manager who is used to listening to his gut feeling and intuition. We can’t expect that person to immediately embrace the latest and greatest analytics solution. As a matter of fact, data can often be viewed as some scary. Starting to rely on analytics can therefore often feel like the proverbial leap of faith.

Why is that so? When we simplify the feelings that a new analytics user experiences we can identify three major stages.

  1. Reject: Can I trust the data? What am I supposed to do with it?
  2. Accept: I can see the value but I can’t identify the stories
  3. Embrace: This is cool! What else can I do with this?

We as analytics professionals have the duty to help people make that leap of faith. We have to make it easy for them to get from stage 1 to stage 3.

Acceptance of Analytics

A personal story

About ten years ago, I got really serious about my running and cycling. Instead of just following my gut feeling for developing a training plan, I purchased a heart rate monitor, a cycling power meter and some analytics software.

Stage 1 – Reject: The initial experience was intimidating. Getting everything to work was complicated and there were a ton of data drop-outs. What about the data itself? It did not tell me anything. All I saw was a bunch of colorful charts and nothing else. I was ready to throw the stuff out of the door. It felt like a waste of time.

Stage 2 – Accept: After a few weeks, however, things started to work smoothly and a coach finally helped me understand the charts and taught me how to identify a few weaknesses in my approach. Based on those insights, I tweaked my plan a little bit. It was a positive step forward but I was still waiting for the big impact.

Polar

Relying on analytics can be a leap of faith

Stage 3 – Embrace: Studyingbooks and consulting with other athletes allowed me to achieve a real break-through. That’s when I finally learned to really rely on the data. Here is an example: Analysis showed that I had trained too hard for over two years. I needed to change my approach and spend more time recovering. It sounded scary: Train slower to race faster? Guess what – it worked! Once I started to back off, I was able to dramatically improve my performance. And that is my personal story of moving from stage 1 (reject) to stage 3 (embrace).

Your role

Don’t expect your users to immediately embrace your cool analytics solution. It is a leap of faith. It is your job to help and coach them. Show them how they can apply their data and the associated insights. Also, make sure that you develop solutions that are easy to use and that communicate clearly. Don’t let them alone. Move them along these three stages. It’s your responsibility! You can also find some ideas how to do that on this blog.

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Inspiration from Stephen Few

Greetings from San Francisco. I am back here to attend Osisoft’s vCampus developer conference. The conference kicked off with a true highlight: Stephen Few delivered one of the keynote presentations. Hopefully, all of you know Stephen and the awesome work he has done over the past years. Today’s presentation was content-rich and also very entertaining. There were a lot of smiling faces in the audience. I will write up a short summary of his messages over the weekend and share it on this blog.

Is this the information age?

Stephen Few started his presentation with a strong statement: We do not live in the information age…..yet. Instead, many of us are drowning in data and we struggle with making sense of the data. Part of the issue is that we are lacking ‘data-sensemaking’ skills. To highlight this point, Stephen Few showed a video. I had never seen it before. It’s funny but there is a strong message behind it: we do not understand how to deliver information properly.

Those concentric circles

Does your organization have a ‘concentric circle’ problem? I certainly know a lot of them. It’s time to change that. Take some time to evaluate whether your reports and dashboards are able to deliver real information.

Concentric circles

“Concentric circles” in the corporate world

 

Check back here in the next few days for a summary of Stephen Few’s presentation.

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Recommended reading: How to convert complex data into a story

The Analytics Communicator

Analytics professionals need to be communicators. Just being technically proficient is longer enough. It is not enough to slap a report or dashboard together on the go. Rather, we have the responsibility to help the business get information out of their data. This is especially true as data volumes continue to grow.  I wrote about this in a recent blog post.

The question though is how to best do this. Earlier this week, I came across an excellent blog post by web analytics guru Avinash Kaushik. His November 5th post provides a detailed example of how to convert a complex data set into a compelling story. I highly encourage you to spend some time reading this inspiring blog post.

 

Avinash Kaushik

 

 

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